Pomp & Circumstances

Five graduations! Hot students! Good vs. evil! Dave Brubeck vs. Eleanor Roosevelt! All this and a pack of Trojans!

When people enter the new auditorium, which is painted a blinding white, they find the school orchestra warming up. The orchestra ranges in age from 8 to 18, which is how the school is set up—preschool to high school, age not as important as proficiency and understanding. The elementary and junior high-age kids don't receive letter grades. As the orchestra plays, kids wander in and out of the room dressed in T-shirts and jeans or shorts. Same goes for the orchestra, which varies from kids in ties to the untucked shirt, black jeans and white tennis shoes of 15-year-old violin soloist Jason Yoon, who will play Elgar's "Salute D'Amor" during the ceremony. The orchestra continues to practice until their director tells them they can do what they like, just be back in a few minutes. Some of the kids bolt, others run to hug teachers. The pianist breaks into the Dave Brubeck standard "Take Five," while a saxophonist varies freely between the themes from Raiders of the Lost Ark and Star Wars. Kids move everywhere. Two of them pound mercilessly on a drum set. All this while adults sit quietly, looking straight ahead. Among them is the school's director, Dr. Glory Ludwick, a psychiatrist who started what was then the state's first private school for gifted children in 1958, using her own studies of the brain as a pedagogical foundation. Teachers will tell you she is the most innovative educator they've ever met. They'll tell you they've never heard her raise her voice in anger. They call her "amazing" and "brilliant."

At present, she's looking a bit lost, standing in the middle of the auditorium, holding a wire basket of programs someone did up on their computer. She looks around and finds a student in a KLOS T-shirt, whom she asks for assistance. But the boy doesn't want to, so he hands them off to a boy who does. It's past 10 a.m., the appointed time for the ceremony, and it's clear that it won't be starting any time soon. This apparently bothers no one. There are no teachers chasing after students, no orchestra leaders tracking down musicians. At 10:15, they discover the stage microphone isn't working. Someone asks a student to take care of it; he does.

At 10:20, the 17 graduates walk in, their camera-toting parents rushing a stage that is adorned only with a curtain, an American flag and a smaller green, yellow and purple flag with "Happy Mardi Gras" on it. The graduates range in age from 16 to 19 because designations like freshman, junior and senior are used only loosely at Emerson. A student graduates when the faculty deems that student ready. They don't count units, but graduates always have more units than they need. When a student displays "mastery," he or she is put on the year-and-a-half track to graduation, since it takes a year for college applications to be prepared, sent and accepted. And everyone who graduates from Emerson goes on to college. The academic standards are rigorous: kids are given the same classes every year; you can't get out of math or science—or art, for that matter—for even a semester. Subjects are visited constantly because, Ludwick says, "we program the brain." But she doesn't care for traditional discipline. Teachers and students work together. Students are expected to respect their teachers and do their work. Teachers are expected to get through to their kids, to make relationships with them, to motivate them. Those who can't are let go. One teacher, Sean Kelly, who taught at Colorado State before coming to Emerson, says he has never sent a kid to the office and doesn't know if there's a structure for discipline. "It's cool," he says.

In fact, there is something written down pertaining to rules, but it's barely two pages long, was written 40 years ago, and contains the directive that children are not to play "Snake in the Grass." When Kelly asks everyone to rise for the Pledge of Allegiance, several in the audience don't. Kelly presents valedictorian Alice Wu, whom he introduces as "my student and my friend." Her voice shaking, Wu says, "Thank you, everyone. We don't want to leave, but it kind of looks like we have to. So thank you, everybody." She sits down in less than a minute. The other valedictorian, Brianna Gerth, who has been at the school practically all her life—since preschool—steps up, thanks everyone, and in less than a minute, sits back down. Awards are given, not only for excellence but for integrity. Every student gets a few presented by teachers who tell stories and cry. Many of the stories have to do with kids overcoming language barriers, since Emerson has an international reputation and regularly has a significant number of international students, especially from Asia. When it's time to hand out diplomas, students come to the front of the stage as Ludwick reaches into a straw basket, draws up a rolled piece of paper, hands it to them and hugs them. The audience claps. The ceremony ends. The graduates move from the stage to a reception in the adjoining room, the orchestra playing "Pomp and Circumstance" one more time before the kid on the piano breaks into one more set of "Take Five."

"ABOVE ALL, BE KIND"Bolsa Grande High School, Bolsa Grande football stadium, Garden Grove. June 23, 5 p.m.
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